Harvard University Uncovers Roadblocks to Deep Learning

Evidence shows that students learn more from active learning strategies than from traditional lectures. 

We also know from both published results and anecdotal evidence that students and faculty seem to resist active learning. In fact, many faculty members have tried active learning and then switched back to doing lecturing. 


Dr. Logan McCarty, Director of Science Education at Harvard University, and Dr. Louis Deslauriers, Director of Science Teaching and Learning at Harvard University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss their recent study of student and faculty preferences vs. outcomes of various learning models, and some potential roadblocks to deep learning.

Active Learning vs. Traditional Lectures

First, what do we mean by active learning? 

Active learning is any type of learning where the students are actively engaged in the process as opposed to traditional lecturing where the faculty member talks throughout the entire class.

Logan and Louis’ experimental design took some physics students, put half in an active learning environment and half in a classroom lecture. 

“We tested them at the end of the class on how much they learned,” Logan said, “and we also asked a survey question about how much did they feel that they learned. And then we switched them, and the students who had gotten active learning in the first case got the passive lecture in the second case.”

Unsurprisingly, the students in the active environment learned more than their peers. What did come as a surprise, however, was that these students felt like they learned less. The students who were actually engaged in struggling with the physics questions and working hard to try to learn? They felt like they learned less from that format whereas the students who had the fluent, well-organized lectures rated them highly. 

“Somehow, these very fluent, well-delivered lectures were misleading the students into thinking that they had learned a lot,” Logan told us, “when in fact, they had learned not nearly as much as the students with the active learning.”

Theories About Harvard’s Findings

Logan and Louis offered us three possible reasons why the results turned out the way they did. 

  1. Fluency plays a huge role. The perception that students hold about how clearly the information came to them affected how much they thought they learned.
  2. The Kruger-Dunning Effect. The Kruger-Dunning Effect says that when you have novices, which would be the way to characterize the students in this experiment, those novices tend to be poor judges of their own learning.
  3. The students in this experiment were not experienced with active learning. Students used to active learning start to get used to seeing evidence of how much they’re learning, and it starts to grow on them.

“The one that’s most important here,” Louis said, “is fluency. We didn’t just compare a typical active learning class with a typical class that uses traditional lectures. In fact, we dialed up the fluency in the traditional lecture to its maximum.”

So a great lecture appealed to students but didn’t advance their learning as much as an active situation.

For decades now, it’s been known that subjects don’t respond well to the techniques that are known to work the best. And in fact, there’s a term that’s been advanced by Bob and Elizabeth Bjork at UCLA  — desirable difficulty. This term says that, as a rule of thumb, if a technique is going to be effective, that is, it’s going to lead to good outcomes, that technique will be associated with a certain amount of desirable difficulty.

Why Do Professors Still Prefer Traditional Lectures?

We know active learning produces better results. But most courses are still taught using traditional lectures. Why?

“Yes, there’s inertia and yes, change is hard,” Louis said. “And if you want to change from traditional lectures to active learning, there’s a barrier to entry, right? Also, in higher education, the incentives are primarily aligned with the research performance as opposed to teaching effectiveness.”

But all that seems overly cynical. In fact, most professors care and care deeply about student learning.  Paradoxically, however, they’re not doing what it takes to achieve student learning, so there must be some cognitive dissonance.

“It’s possible on your best day to give a traditional lecture,” Louis said, “where at least you feel that your students are learning a great deal. And I think that’s the problem, that’s at the heart of the problem.”

Next-Steps Advice for Institutions Looking to Increase Deep Learning

You can start by adding an additional measure, and one of the simplest and most straightforward things to do has been advanced by Carl Wyman, Sarah Gilbert, and Michelle Smith. They’ve developed a classroom observation protocol where observers go into classrooms and they quantify the amount and the type of active learning that’s being used. And it doesn’t pose a judgment. It doesn’t say if the active learning was implemented properly or not. It just quantifies how much of it was used at the institution. 

“So that I would think should certainly supplement instructor evaluations, especially in tenure cases,” Louis said, “so this right there would put us in the right direction.”


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Logan McCarty and Dr. Louis Deslauriers from Harvard University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.